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Thomas Heatherwick Studio, rendering for “Vessel” (2016) (all images by and courtesy Forbes Massie)

Influenced by the M.C. Escher-esque designs of Indian stepwells, British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick has unveiled plans for a giant stairway to nowhere in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Tentatively titled “Vessel,” the public landmark will consist of 154 intersecting flights of stairs and 80 landings zigzagging up above a plaza and garden on the far west side of Manhattan. Made of bronzed steel and concrete, the structure is slated to open in 2018.

Thomas Heatherwick Studio, interior rendering for “Vessel,” with 80 observation decks (2016) (click to enlarge)

Resembling a giant bronze ribcage — or a beehive, or a basket, depending on whom you ask — “Vessel” will weigh 600 tons and cost $150 million. It will be among the least utilitarian structures of its size in a space-starved city: its 2,500 steps don’t lead to any offices or condominiums or retail spaces. Instead, the sculptural “Vessel” will essentially function as a massive observation tower and jungle gym. While hiking the miles worth of stairs to the top, 16 stories up, visitors will get 360-degree views of the surrounding city and a free workout. A curving elevator will make the structure wheelchair accessible.

In addition to Indian stepwells, Heatherwick’s design was inspired by a beloved piece of urban detritus from his youth. “When I was a student, I fell in love with an old discarded flight of wooden stairs outside a local building site,” Heatherwick said in a statement about the design. “It caught my imagination and I loved that it was part furniture and part infrastructure. You could climb up stairs, jump on them, dance on them, get tired on them, and then plonk yourself down on them.”

Thomas Heatherwick Studio, rendering for “Vessel” (2016)

Years later, when Heatherwick’s studio was commissioned by Hudson Yards developer Related Companies to create a centerpiece landmark for the site, this old discarded wooden staircase came to mind. “We wondered whether [the commission] could be built entirely from steps and landings?” Heatherwick said. “The goal became to lift people up to be more visible and to enjoy new views and perspectives of each other. … The idea is that it will act as a new free stage set for the city and form a new public gathering place for New Yorkers and visitors.”

Thomas Heatherwick Studio, rendering for “Vessel” (2016) (click to enlarge)

Hudson Yard, the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States and the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center in 1939, already features one dramatic and towering public artwork, albeit below ground — Xenobia Bailey’s “Funktional Vibrations” in the 34th Street–Hudson Yards subway station. “Vessel” will rise up from the center of a five-acre public square and garden designed by landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz in collaboration with Thomas Heatherwick Studio. The green space will be filled with groves of trees, perennial gardens, woodland plants, and a 200-foot-long fountain.

Especially given its lack of commercial or residential purpose, the dramatic public art piece is bound to be met with criticism. “We know ‘Vessel’ will be debated and discussed and looked at from every angle, and Thomas,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told to the architect at the project’s unveiling on Wednesday, “if you meet 100 New Yorkers, you will find 100 different opinions on the beautiful work you’ve created. Do not be dismayed.”

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

9 replies on “New York Is Getting a 16-Story, $150 Million Staircase to Nowhere”

  1. Needs escalators. The last thing a tourist wants to do is hike up some stairs for no reason. Escalators would be totally absurd and that would make it fantastic.

  2. That it hypothetically serves no purpose is a disingenuous assertion. In terms of pubic art and urban parks, this piece serves to make for an intriguing live-able space. Think of it as a ‘vertical park’.
    …and it certainly beats yet another memorial, corporate tower of babel or even worse another weapon system that doesn’t work (or does).

    1. It’s about as livable and full of purpose as a fire egress stair. By these loose standards you can display public art in every fire stair in New York. If there were a different aesthetic or experience or planting as you walk up different routes of this thing, I’d go along with begrudgingly calling it a “vertical park”, but this is just a monument of waste. I can’t think of anything less useful being built in New York at the present moment.

  3. This is awesome! I would go to New York just for this. I’ll leave consternation over a “lack of purpose” (false) for the millions of Babbitts who only care about how much it costs and who can exploit it for profit, or what they could buy or produce there. Grow a soul. It’s the perfect place to meet your online date or engage in endless peripatetic discussions with friends and enemies. Perfect selfie backdrop and stunning public sculpture.

    1. The last way I want to meet my online date is sweaty and out of breath at the top of 16 stories of stairs, only to realize there’s nothing for us to do but criticize the waste of $150 million we find ourselves on.

      You nailed it: “perfect selfie backdrop” is all this thing is good for; and that’s a metaphor for so much of the architecture going up in New York right now.

  4. I am still waiting for someone to bring up the weather situation this installation will experience in the winter time. How long before management just decides to just close the whole thing down in the winter time? Even if they have a plan in place to clean snow and ice (and icicles hanging from the underside of the stairs waiting to fall on someone), you can’t clean all of it. Accidents will happen more frequently on a set of stairs than a flat sidewalk that is cleaned and salted. And it doesn’t matter what type of de-icer you use, it is not good for fresh concrete, so get ready for major repairs the first spring after opening. Maybe the doubling in cost was due to realizing they should install in-floor heating in every step to keep ice at bay ?

  5. Just next door, you can see public space done right, the High Line by Diller + Scofidio, a New York-based office run by a New York-born architect who understand and hold in great respect the city in which they are based and have the fortune of building in, and its history.

    But here we have a London-based office designing a monument of wasteful developer-driven spending, a poster-child of the “selfie-architecture” era: a nice backdrop for that quick selfie you want to post for your friends at home, and when you’ve given your 5 seconds of full attention marveling at this “beauty” behind your selfie stick, you continue your quest to find the nearest Starbucks, Famiglia Pizzeria, or Chipotle, which are no longer ever all that far. This is a structure that could be built in the middle of an expanse of Kansas corn fields and still have the same purpose, meaning, and use (whoops, or lack thereof); it does not respect its context (the beautiful city of New York), it does not offer this city a damn thing.

    I wonder what metaphor I could draw from all of this. This thing stands with an arrogance and carefree uselessness that only the invading super-rich jobless transplant/foreigner trust fund babies could surely feel part of. Maybe they’ll find this cool to do drugs and relax in on the weekdays, high up removed from the rest of working society, where no one can bother them. This thing was made for them, not New Yorkers. And yet, even for them, this will take 3 subway transfers to get to from their $8,000/month 1 bedroom luxury apartment in Williamsburg. Nope. I don’t see tourists wanting to go up there either, after they’ve walked half of Manhattan or the High Line on foot all day. Good job picking this one, guys.

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